Pride of Penncrest shows even in defeat

EXETER TWP. >> Tears rolled down Emily Hopkins’ face following Penncrest’s 3-0 loss to Hempfield in the opening round of the PIAA girls Class AAA volleyball tournament at Exeter Township High School Tuesday night.

Sure she was sad that Penncrest’s season, and her scholastic career, had come to an end, but those weren’t tears of sadness.

“These are happy tears,” Hopkins said. “I’m so proud of this team.”

The Lions (19-7) set a goal to make the state playoffs, something Penncrest had not done since 1995, and the Lions achieved that objective, despite falling to Ridley in the semifinals of the Central League playoffs. To do that, Penncrest had to beat Central Bucks South, Abington and Mount St. Joseph to secure the program’s first trip to the state tourney in two decades.

“We knew it was achievable and we knew it would be tough, but it was something we set our sights on a long time ago,” Hopkins said. “This is something we wanted to do as freshmen and to be able to do it was just great. We had the best time. It was a great experience.”

Penncrest coach Jen Carney wholeheartedly agreed.

“It was a great run,” Carney said.

That run, though, came to an end against one of the best teams in the state, and one with a championship pedigree. The Black Knights have won five PIAA championships, the last in 2013, and have been to the Class AAA state final in each of the last four seasons.

Hempfield (20-1) entered the state tournament ranked third in the state by the Pennsylvania Volleyball Coaches Association. Its only loss was a 3-1 decision to District One Class AAA champ Bishop Shanahan Oct. 13. The Black Knights have won 12 in a row and have not lost a set since that match.

Yet Penncrest made Hempfield sweat. The Lions had a three-point lead on three occasions in the first set before falling, 25-18, 25-15, 25-17.

“We didn’t play well and Penncrest played great,” Hempfield coach Andrew Orlee said.

In the end, it was a timeout Orlee took with Penncrest leading 11-8 in the first set that turned things around for the Black Knights. Hempfield scored 17 of the final 24 points to take the set.

“We just needed to settle down,” Orlee said.

Hempfield regained its composure largely due to the setting of senior Marrisa Wonders, who racked up 31 assists, most of which went to Mariah Cadzow (14 kills) and Sonia Musso (11 kills). Senior libero Brienna Tankesley set the tone on defense with 11 digs.

“They were so good defensively,” Carney said of the Black Knights. “They didn’t let the ball hit the floor.”

Penncrest hung tough behind Hopkins (six kills, 20 service receptions, eight digs) and fellow senior Gianna Gargiule (12 assists), and juniors Diana Balta (eight kills, 10 digs) and Nikki Gargiule (16 digs). However, that was not enough to keep the best volleyball season at Penncrest in 20 years going for another game.

“This was a huge accomplishment for us,” Hopkins said. “To be able to set your sights high and then achieve that goal is a great feeling. It’s something we’ll never forget.”

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